Gresham is now a 1st year law student. He and his friend William went on a mission trip I once led to West Virginia. Gresham, who just finished his first year of law school, emailed me as he returned to Austin for William's wedding.
Just saying hello would have been great enough, but I was also pleased that Gresham took the time to comment on my sermon! He wrote this:
I must comment on your recent sermon on Pentecost Sunday. I affirm your sentiment of how "'the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal, is most wonderfully kind.'" The testimony of the four Gospels affirms a mystery to truly knowing God. God does not fit within our doctrinal boxes, for sure. I appreciate being reminded of that in your sermon.
However, I must take issue with the following statement and the rest of your sermon. "Relying on four rather different Gospel accounts of Jesus, instead of a singular account, is a constant reminder that the particular words used are not as important as the truth to be found within them. Pentecost is ultimately the charge to share our truth as we understand it: the path by which that we have encountered God."
Do you really believe truth is shaped by how we understand it? Is God's truth so mysterious that no man can fully grasp even essential doctrines, and therefore each person's interpretation is equally valid?
It was with a touch of pride that I read his words. I've always encouraged all of the youth I work with to speak their minds and engage in the things they hear, and Gresham clearly has grown up to be thoughtful and honest. This reply of his, even though he was disagreeing with me, was very satisfying to hear!
Here was my response to his thoughts:
"Relying on four rather different Gospel accounts of Jesus, instead of a singular account, is a constant reminder that the particular words used are not as important as the truth to be found within them." Primarily, this is a statement that what the Gospel collectively means is more important than pulling out a particular quotation, often out of its context, to "prove a point" (usually a "I'm right, your wrong" point, at that).
You ask "Do you really believe truth is shaped by how we understand it?" Of course, the answer is no. However, we can most authentically only share our experience with our encounters/understandings of truth. (We can share what others have written, but the passion from sharing this usually comes from our understanding of its meaning.) Regurgitating doctrine without sharing one's understanding isn't very helpful. Sharing what it means to you, however, is powerful because of its genuineness. The hearer (either you, or the person you are listening to) doesn't (and often shouldn't) have to take it all as truth. Really listening to others, however, in a sense of openness, is likely to expand our comprehension of the mystery of God.
"Is God's truth so mysterious that no man can fully grasp even essential doctrines?" I believe that this is true, especially if by "essential doctrine" you mean "essential belief," as in views required for life in God (if you don't believe this way, you're going to hell). However, even if you are referring to understanding of something like the mystery of "grace" (meaning that grace is freely given by God to all, regardless of belief or action: amazing to us people, since we want good actions rewarded and bad actions punished), then I think we can have glimpses into God, but never full understanding. Grace is a mystery. I still think it matters how we live our lives. But if grace is really God's gift, freely given, it cannot be earned nor disinherited. I believe my understanding to be correct here, but because it hinges on mystery, my grasping of it will always be, in some sense, incomplete.
I would not, however, conclude that "therefore each person's interpretation is equally valid." I think that's the reason for "church community". One can certainly believe anything one wants...but validity comes in community. In the Episcopal church, we do not insist that everyone believes exactly the same way. We share in common our understanding that Jesus is our way, our truth, and our light. Jesus is OUR WAY of knowing God. We are all works in progress, where struggling with questions is more important than clinging to concrete answers (which are often full of cracks). Questioning in community keeps us grounded, and we hold each other accountable to live as Jesus has taught us, proclaiming the love of God, and seeking justice for all of creation.
This leads to the understanding that there are other ways to know God: Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, to name only a few. They aren't my way, but their community of faith validates them in similar fashion. Their validity doesn't change the reality that the Christian faith is in itself sufficient, and the right way for me, to "know God."
I think that's what Archbishop Tutu means, and I would agree with him.
Hey, I hope we can continue these conversations and others! Kurt
It's my hope that those of you reading this will take Gresham's lead and be encouraged to comment on my posts!